There is no doubt that social media has transformed the way engage with each other and, to an even greater extent, the way we curate our own personalities before presenting them to the world. Earlier and much more juvenile virtual platforms like ICQ (1996) and Hi5 (2003) didn’t pretend to be anything else other than a space where the primary goal was to connect people (predominantly teens and pre-teens) across the globe. And that was exactly what they were used for. At the time, no one imagined the window of opportunities they would open.Thinking back on it (yes, I’m not ashamed to admit that I had accounts on both ICQ and Hi5), it should’ve been criminal to waste that much time asking strangers ASL (age/sex/location). Maybe it was sheep syndrome but this is just what teenagers did at the time, at least the ones with access to a computer or Internet café. And because those platforms were created specifically for that demographic, there wasn’t much consideration given to expanding the way those sites functioned. But as with most things, it was just a matter of time before developers found a way to create new platforms that fulfilled our need to connect globally while creating needs we never imagined we would ever have.
Out of the desire to connect with long lost family members and friends or even to meet potential love interests, social media websites have grown to include services that cater more to the “pay for publicity” trend. But we didn’t always have to pay to reach our audience. There was a time when anyone with a product or service to offer could’ve reached every single subscriber of his or her page, absolutely free of charge. Of course it wasn’t long before this all changed and heavy restrictions altered how we engaged with our virtual audience.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to developers and persons working for those platforms getting paid. Everyone has to live right? I can’t begin to imagine the work and resources involved in keeping millions of persons connected 24/7 with very little to no bugs ruining their experience. However, I can imagine a system of fairness that doesn’t force users to “boost” their posts by paying in order to reach subscribers they acquired organically. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with social media platforms like Facebook and more recently Instagram.
In my own experience as a visual artist using both platforms I can testify to the not-so-subtle shift in the performance of both. I created my first Facebook page in 2010 I believe (I’m terrible with dates and the page no longer exists), as a space where I could share my process, my artwork and news about art exhibitions in Guyana. It was a fun time when I would post content and they would actually reach my 600 plus viewers. Whether they chose to engage with the content was a different matter, but the point is they saw the posts. Then came the restrictions.
I imagine that Monday morning conference meeting went something like this: “Okay guys, here’s the deal. We need to make as much money as possible from this. Entrepreneurs, artists and musicians have found ways to use their online presence to generate sales and I’m mad as hell we didn’t think of this first! Now how can we make them pay?” And so the scramble to find ways to tax us began.
Before Facebook announced that they were making changes to our news feed, page owners were already experiencing a significant decline in user reach and interaction. They claimed that their decision to switch from a chronological display to one based on most engagement with “high quality content” was not driven by profit potential (side eye). In fact, they chalked up our lack of user engagement to ever-increasing content posted by our subscribers’ friends, resulting in a system that was stretched thin trying to accommodate everyone.
But here’s a thought: maybe there would be room for our content in their newsfeed if our subscribers weren’t bombarded with every single status or photograph their friends liked or commented on, that 99% of the time had nothing to do with them. That’s one way to solve that problem.
Although I didn’t pay for my subscribers (which is now a thing, apparently), I have to pay if I want them to see my posts. On the other hand, if I did pay for my subscribers then I would also have to pay every time I want them to see the content. As it is, the posts on my new page of 100 plus subscribers reach, on average, 20 persons (and this is post reach not engagement). If I want any significant engagement with a big announcement I would pay to have them “boosted.” All other posts are left for a more organic engagement, which now translates to “nothing happens.” But it’s not about making money for them right? Why else would there be options to boost the page, individual posts and website?
I’m observing a similar trend with the photo and video-sharing app Instagram (acquired by Facebook in 2012). Posts are no longer chronologically listed. Instead, as in the case of Facebook, they are listed based on most engagement with “high quality content” (which should really be renamed “people who paid content”). How does your content qualify as “high content” if no one sees in the first place? And now the introduction of sponsored ads on our timelines threatens to push our content even further off the map. I can hardly wait to see what else is in store for us.
Being seen or getting your work out there has become somewhat easier but it has also become very expensive. You’re forced to play the game if you want even the smallest chance of establishing a successful and sustainable creative practice. This is what no one prepares you for in the art school environment. The hardest part isn’t making the work, it’s selling it. And don’t be fooled, the objective for even the most romantic of us doing it for the “love of art,” is to sell. A house filled with painted canvases or sculptures is a lovely idea until you remember that bartering is not an acceptable form of payment at the supermarket. At the end of the day money talks and, well, you know the rest.